Awakening and Expanding Our Conception of Leadership: Weaving Networks for Sustainability

Natural Learning Project

The Children in Nature Collaborative’s “Natural Learning Project” encourages unstructured play and opening of the senses to connect with the landscape and natural materials.

Fellow Mary Roscoe of the Children in Nature Collaborative is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and offers these reflections on leadership and network weaving. Through a personal case study, she offers an example of a group expanding their conception of leadership and, through the power of their networks, shifting from a perspective of scarcity of resources to abundance.

Leadership Purpose
As a participant in the Daily Leadership Practices Project, Robert Gass of the Social Transformation Project invited us to focus on a simple phrase that expresses our purpose, what we are about as a leader, our source of power.  I quickly found the phrase “awaken and expand perception, catalyze cultural shift.”

How we as leaders perceive the world and respond is intimately connected to our purpose and the daily challenges we encounter. In my work with partners in the San Francisco Bay Area Children in Nature Collaborative, I often see leaders arriving at our meetings weary and overwhelmed by their organizational lives and I reflect on the sustainability of leadership today – how much we have depleted our own human as well as natural resources.

A Case Study: Network Leadership and Governance
In my work, I coordinate a regional movement in the San Francisco Bay Area inspired by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods. Louv’s book inspired a national movement powered by over a hundred self-organizing regional initiatives with the intention of restoring children’s relationship with nature as an essential part of their physical, mental, social and spiritual health. The heart of the matter is the recognition that the health of our children and the health of the planet are intertwined. For me, this resonates with my leadership purpose, to help bring about a cultural shift.

Wild Zone

The Collaborative set up a Wild Zone in a park in Oakland, California primarily for inner city families and…

This year, a group of 12 leaders from our Bay Area network met as a planning group every 4-6 weeks to explore larger collective initiatives for restoring children’s relationship to nature as an essential part of their daily lives. In our meetings, I often recognized our lack of ability to consider “one more thing” – yet there were also moments with a rush of energy, generosity of spirit, and inspiration when we were present and deeply connected to our purpose. When I asked the regional leadership group’s members to list the other formal and informal networks they are part of, I found our group is connected to a total of over 120 networks – a dynamic picture of the potential power of the group.

A few months ago tension emerged in the group related to leadership and governance – what is the most effective governance structure for our regional grassroots movement? This came at an appropriate point in our meeting cycle – yet I found it challenging. Although we are a movement – we were clear about not wanting to start yet another organization – almost by default our reference points for governance were conventional leadership approaches and organizational thinking.

My official job title is “coordinator” of our regional children and nature movement and what I do closely fits the role of a network weaver. Yet several questions related to governance and executive leadership emerged as I prepared for the May meeting. I found myself both listening and balancing the questions related to conventional leadership and governance with my perception of our efforts as a powerful network and dynamic movement – an ecosystem. I thought about systems thinker and sustainability practitioner Donella Meadows’ references to the three elements important for healthy systems – resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy – that she discusses in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer.

In an effort to gain perspective and prepare for our regional leadership meeting, I reached out to the Sustainability Leaders Network, of which I am a Donella Meadows Leadership Fellow. I contacted Edie Farwell and Dominic Stucker, with whom I have been sharing notes and resources on networks for the past few years, for guidance about the dilemma of governance. Dominic first reflected on the strengths of the Children in Nature Collaborative and encouraged me to ask myself some key questions about what would best serve the collaborative as a network:

  • What is the purpose of governance and what structure would best serve that purpose?
  • What kind of services or support do members expect?
  • How can members feel a sense of belonging?
  • How can members know that their contributions are valuable and desired?
  • How can governance offer both added value of network membership and ensure that members feel/have ownership?

Dominic also sent the article “Global Action Networks: An Organizational Innovation” by Steve Waddell in the Society for Organizational Learning’s Reflections Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3-4. The article reflects on networks at the global level, and was helpful with its discussion of the collaborative governance model. Edie suggested that I look at the Monitor Institute and I read two articles related to their work:

For my situation, “Transformer: How to build a network to change a system” was the most helpful article. It described a network of 125 nonprofits and funders focused on climate change that had a bold vision of cutting emissions by 80% in the upper Midwest of the US. Their first step was studying systems thinking for a year to determine key leverage points. They then developed independent groups to focus on those leverage points. Rather than developing a central staff, they had a coordinator, plus and one support staff person assigned to each independent group.

With the confidence gained from these resources and support from the Sustainability Leaders Network, I prepared for my regional leadership meeting by developing a bold proposal inspired by the Monitor Institute’s “Transformer” article.

Wild Zone 2

…large palm fronds, branches, and natural materials were provided for unstructured family play.

Case Study Outcomes
The meeting was ultimately successful in surprising ways – it connected me to my own passion for the direction of my leadership and, through a question I asked the group, we uncovered each person’s passion, energy, and ideas. The question of governance was put aside with the confidence that we will discover what is most needed and relevant as we undertake two collective initiatives in the coming year. The conception of leadership shifted from a narrow to a broader and more diverse perspective.

I was able to plan a follow-up meeting based on my purpose of  “awakening and expanding perception, catalyzing cultural shift.”  I mapped the process of our group’s learning and decisions over the previous nine months with the picture of the collaborative as a network connected to 120 other networks. The group began to move from the perception of scarcity (related to the group’s energy and resources) to the picture of connections, generosity and abundance within the ecosystem of our network.

Next Steps
As a “network weaver” I often help partners by providing resources and connections that give confidence and direction for their next step in implementing a project or idea. In the above case study, the roles were reversed – I needed help, and I felt so grateful that the Sustainability Leaders Network responded quickly to my need for clarity and resources at time when I felt overwhelmed.

There are still plenty of questions. And now I have the opportunity to continue exploring these questions and sharing this work with a session (The Children and Nature Movement: A Network of Networks) that I am leading in October at a national conference in Oakland for the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Dominic has recently moved to California and that brings us as network weavers in closer proximity to continue to share our respective work and the amazing picture of the Sustainability Leaders Network, making connections around the world in the name of sustainability.

If you are interested in network weaving, here are some more resources that I find useful.  Feel free to add more in the comments section, below!

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2 Responses to Awakening and Expanding Our Conception of Leadership: Weaving Networks for Sustainability

  1. Gabriela Anaya says:

    Great article Mary, thank you! One additional resource that I found especially compelling is John Kania and Mark Kramer’s article on Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.

  2. Mary Roscoe says:

    Thank you for your response! Our leadership group read Collective Impact as one of our first studies and we quickly and easily created a common agenda. In the spring, members of the group felt that we needed a backbone support organization, which led into the governance question.

    As you may already know, the article Channeling Change, Making Collective Impact Work” was written by Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania, and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January 2012 as a follow-up to the Collective Impact article.

    Please let us know of any other articles of interest.

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